What about Nancy?

08.02.16 12 months ago

WARNING: There are major Stranger Things spoilers below.

Who could have predicted that Barb, the principled bestie who's granted just a few minutes of screentime in Netflix's Stranger Things, would become the show's breakout character? The phenomenon speaks powerfully to the Upside Down nature of our digital age: clearly, Barb's rise couldn't have happened without the benefit of social media, where viewers have made their fondness for the character known via memes, fan art and other adoring tributes. The media, for its part, has responded in kind: Shannon Purser, the 19-year-old actor who plays Nancy's orange-haired confidante, has swiftly become the most in-demand interview subject of the entire cast.

Being a former teenage outcast myself (not to mention a gay man), I can certainly appreciate the veneration. For me, too, Barb speaks to still-palpable feelings of alienation, and I immediately sparked to the character — who tragically ends her brief life sitting alone on a backyard diving board, eyes cast down towards the glowing water — for that very reason. On further reflection, though, there's something that feels a little shallow about my affection for her, and I somewhat lament that she has risen to prominence at the expense of Nancy, a character who has stuck with me far more palpably.

What about Nancy, after all? Nancy, the doe-eyed older sister whose split-second betrayal reverberates in ways no teenager should ever have to experience? Nancy, whose steely gaze and pursed-lipped persistence helps bring down the likes of the Demogorgon? It feels almost cruel to discount her. Despite harshly shooing Barb away just minutes before she's snatched by the petal-faced monster and pulled into the Upside Down, Nancy is far from the sort of one-note “pretty girl” first established in the high school films released during the decade Stranger Things pays such loving tribute to.

Much of the credit for the character's three-dimensional quality must go to Natalia Dyer, who with her emotive eyes suggests a soul-woundedness that far transcends the archetype Nancy initially appears to inhabit when we first glimpse her through a half-open bedroom door. As written by the Duffers, Nancy is relatably flawed: a studious, ostensibly “ordinary” high-school girl who is so clouded by her desire for alpha-male classmate Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) that she leaves Barb in the lurch when the big-spectacled wingwoman decides she's gone too far. It's an understandable teenage foible, but given the stakes here, Nancy's relatively minor transgression gives viewers perfectly good reason to pitch their loyalties towards Barb, and they have in sizable numbers.

Still, something about this mass reaction feels reductive. While it's easy for us to “relate” to an inoffensive exemplar of teenage awkwardness like Barb, I would bet that there are just as many people out there, myself included, who can relate to Nancy's decision to temporarily spurn her best friend in favor of the hunk upstairs (proverbial or otherwise), letting our better instincts fall by the wayside in pursuit of more immediate pleasures. We just aren't as willing to admit it.

One of the most admirable elements of Stranger Things is the surprising ways in which it resolves the relationships between its teenage characters — specifically Nancy, Steve, Barb and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Barb, subverting our expectations for the geeky underdog, meets a grisly fate early on, while her more outwardly-conventional friend lives to the end of the final reel. Meanwhile, Nancy chooses Steve over social outcast Jonathan, another twist that challenges our comfortable notions of how these scenarios are “supposed” to play out in popular fiction (though Pretty in Pink admittedly got there first). 

Most refreshing of all, Nancy isn't (directly) punished for her betrayal of Barb but rather ends the series comfortably snuggled in front of the TV with her boyfriend, suggesting the Duffers are more understanding of her youthful indiscretion than many of the show's viewers. It's also worth noting that Nancy will inevitably suffer guilt and regret over her indirect role in Barb's death for the rest of her life, making any further punishment feel like a cruel and unusual stroke of the keyboard. The Duffers seem to understand that, too.

Barb's rise to cult fandom in the span of just a couple of weeks feels unlikely on its face but, when you consider the geek-steeped culture in which we currently find ourselves, it's really not all that surprising. One of the great things about our digital age is that the labels “geek” and “nerd” are almost invariably worn as a badge of pride by those who in earlier generations might have been pressured to hide their pop-cultural obsessions for fear of social reprisal. One of the bad things about it is that these labels are now often touted disingenuously by those who identify as such to gain a measure of standing in an era that tends to reward, rather than punish, a preoccupation with aspects of pop culture that were previously viewed as the sole territory of basement-dwelling pariahs.

In other words: it's not a Nancy-friendly era. Or rather, it's an era in which the Barbs are far more fashionable objects of admiration than the Nancys. And yet it strikes me as something of a disservice to the Duffers' sophisticated way with characters that the scales of devotion are tipped so lopsidedly in Barb's favor when it is Nancy who serves as a more accurate reflection of our complex inner selves, speaking to the ways in which we have all, at some point or another, had our judgment clouded by the desire to be popular (read: loved), in whatever form that might have taken.

I'll say it again: I love Barb. In fact, I wanted more of her, if only to get a glimpse of the deeper layers that lay beneath her sensible, frilly-collared exterior. Still, for a series that so deftly manages to imbue tired nostalgic tropes with deeper resonance, it's unfortunate that one of the show's most non-archetypal, three-dimensional characters — a teenage girl caught between the need to be desired and the less-urgent need to be true to her own good nature — has been all but ignored in favor of a character who, for all of her lovable qualities, ultimately stands in for an idea of who we all wish we were, as opposed to the complicated people we actually are.

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